Joseph Han’s beautifully strange debut novel, Nuclear Family, is full of ghosts and spirits, real and metaphorical. At first it seems to be a relatively straightforward intergenerational saga about a Korean family in Hawaii, but soon the inventiveness of Han’s storytelling becomes apparent, and readers are submerged in a world where nothing is quite as it seems.
Hoping for a fresh start away from his family, 20-something Jacob Cho takes a job teaching English in Seoul. Not long after his arrival, he attempts to cross the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and is taken into custody. Back in Hawaii, his family is consumed with worry. His parents are struggling to keep their restaurant in business, while his sister, Grace, spends more and more of her time getting high.
None of them know that Jacob has been possessed by the ghost of his dead grandfather, Tae-woo, who is desperate to get across the DMZ to reunite with the family he left behind during the war. In Jacob, Tae-woo sees his best chance to get across the wall that has kept him—and countless others—separated from those they love, even in death.
Through this literal possession of a young man by a sly and grieving grandfather, Han tells a moving and specific story about more symbolic possessions—how violence possesses bodies, how history possesses the present and how a person’s stories remain alive in their descendants, even if those stories go unspoken.
Events unfold through a dizzying array of voices: Jacob, Grace and their parents; Tae-woo and his fellow ghosts; Jacob’s other grandparents; and a kind of Greek chorus of local Hawaiians, both Native and immigrant families. Han zooms in and out, moving between perspectives, times and places. These quick shifts in tone and voice can be disorienting, but they also give the novel its momentum.
Nuclear Family is about the trauma of living with invented borders, about dispossession and exile, and about the unhealed wounds of war that are felt across generations. Han’s characters—both dead and alive—are haunted by the past, even as they seek to escape it. Darkly funny, delightfully surprising and with a sprinkling of unusual formatting that reveals hidden subplots, Han’s debut bears witness to the brutal realities of war and imperialism while honoring the many kinds of magic that exist in the world.